Turncoat North Korean diplomats reveal black comedy of life in a `socialist paradise'

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North Korean defectors yesterday revealed the tragicomic depths to which the country has sunk under its oppressive regime.

Hyun Sung-il, a former diplomat, described to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London yesterday the extent to which ordinary North Koreans are influenced by state propaganda.

"People think North Korea is a socialist paradise. For many North Koreans, the food crisis is caused only by nature," he said.

Joining him at the meeting was Ann Myeong-chul, a former guard at a political prison camp. He gave a graphic example which illustrated the confusion, describing an incident after he had escaped from North Korea into China, from where he was trying to get to South Korea. "I asked an old man to help me. He said Kim il-Sung [the late North Korean leader] had made us all beggars - and I hit him. Then I realised what I had done. He was helping me - but I was still brainwashed."

Mr Hyun was a diplomat at the North Korean embassy to Zambia until his defection last year. He described how the embassy received no funds from Pyongyang. Instead, he and his colleagues indulged in smuggling and black- market trading - including ivory, rhino-horn and precious stones - to raise cash. An embassy minibus was commandeered to provide a private bus service to raise money for living expenses. When the embassy organised a national day reception, the diplomats had no money to serve food. They caught fish in rivers and lakes and served the fish. "They said that these were typical North Korean dishes."

When the embassy in Mozambique asked for funds to be sent from Pyongyang, the prompt response from Pyongyang was to close down the embassy entirely. As a result, said Mr Hyun, most diplomats preferred to keep their mouths shut.

Mr Hyun, who is now based in South Korea, pressed for a tougher line on aid to North Korea. "Humanism is good. But aid based on humanism will only maintain the system." He argued that North Korea must be forced into much more radical change. "The only way of saving the North Korean people from disaster is to change the leadership."